Alan Shepard, was close, so, close â€” he ventured into space 50 years ago today, the first American in space, but a little less than a month too late to be the first human being in space. That honor went to the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
As the saying goes, “Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.” Still, it’s important to remember the achievement of America’s first man in space on May 5, 1961 on board the Freedom 7 â€” an achievement that would eventually lead to the first moon landing. It’s debatable which was the more significant accomplishment (first person in space or first person on the Moon), but no one can argue with the bravery or pioneering spirit of all any of the Astronauts and Cosmonauts risking their lives to take those first steps away from Mother Earth.
For Shepard, this was the culmination of years of rigorous training and a selection process that chose him from amongst the hundreds of other test pilots vying for the distinction to be chosen as one of those with the “right stuff.”
The countdown for the Freedom 7 flight started at 8:30PM the night before, but Shepard did not enter the capsule until 5:15 AM on May 5th, 2 hours before the “planned” take off time, but the lift off would not happen until 9:20 AM. This was the period when Shepard is supposed to have coined what would become know as Shepard’s Prayer “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f--- up”, although Shepard claims the exact words to be “Don’t f--- up, Shepardâ€¦” (Do I see a possible orthodoxy war in the far future between Shepard Fundamentalist and Reformist sects?).
With an estimated 45 million people watching him on TV in the United States, he lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Shepard did not achieve orbit as Gagarin did, but he did control his own ship whereas Gagarin was basically just a passenger along on an automated ride. Shepard was able to position his ship, practicing different maneuvers, before finally splash-landing in the Atlantic ocean having traveled 302 miles in just over 15 minutes.
It’s also important to remember Shepard’s other great accomplishment: Besides being the first American in space, Shepard was also the fifth man to walk on the moon, clocking the longest moon walk and also becoming the first (and, as far we know, only) human to play golf on another world.
Before he died in 1998, he and fellow Mercury Astronaut Deke Slayton (who served as Director of Flight Crew Operations throughout the Apollo program) recorded their first-hand experiences in the book MOON SHOT: The Inside Story of Americaâ€™s Apollo Moon Landing, which is being re-released as an enhanced ebook for the 50th anniversary of his momentous journey. The new version has been updated by noted journalist Jay Barbree, who has covered every American space flight. In the new edition, Barbree includes never-before known or told stories of Apollo missions, embedded video, and Barbree’s thoughts on the state of the American space program today.
Below, you can enjoy the commemorative video NASA has put together to celebrate the occasion.